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Northern Reporter: How a bout that

August 2, 2012 Comments off

Well I did say I had no free time, didn’t I?

A single post about time management early in the summer and I disappear like, uh, like a shadow from a light bulb. Is that clever? Who knows, I’m tired.

Anyway, as I wrestled with someting to write about during a sudden moment of freedom, I recalled an early career story that I can’t believe I haven’t told yet.

So the year was 2007. Fresh at my first paper, I was assigned to report on the local boxing club which was hosting a competition over the weekend.

My extensive knowledge of boxing at that moment in time was as follows:

 

Yes, that much. However I watched the matches with enthusiasm, taking as many non-flash photos as I could, after the referee stopped a match and asked that I not use the flash after I made the flub. In a dark boxing arena that was terrible news for a reporter.

I carried on, however, and did what I could.

Back at the office later, the protocol was I laid out the sports page myself once I received the dummy, and my editor would take a peek at it before I marked it done.

This week, falling behind on his own work, the editor simply said he trusted me this time and to just send it when I thought it was ready.

Extra responsibility. Oh yeah!

Except my sorely lacking background in sports would have been obvious to my editor when I wrote passages referring to a “game” of boxing. There was something else I did repeatedly. Perhaps said exhibit match instead of exhibition. Who knows. All I know is that I butchered the terminology of the game.

Now, I argue to this day that boxing should be considered a game. Two people compete for a prize. Sounds like a game to me, just with more punching. I can’t really argue the other mess-up in the terminology, but hey, live and learn.

The boxing coach himself, a very nice, large, intimidating man, calmly filled me in on what I got wrong at a later match. I admire a person who strives to educate rather than belittle.

The random, anonymous e-mail from somewhere in Victoria, BC wasn’t so nice. A reader who keeps up with us online read the story and sent  a terse message basically insinuating I lacked mental capacity and questioned whether I even care about what I write.

I do care, for the record.

Ignorance isn’t always bliss, especially in the public record. Without knowing I didn’t know, I wrote up a boxing story with the wording all wrong.

I later purchased a copy of the New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge, specifically in response to my flub. It’s a massive book, but if it told me my bouts from my games or my rinks from my teams, it’d be money well spent.

And just so you know, boaters are also not to be messed with. My editor once told me about the readers who phoned him after he mistakenly called a larger tanker-like vessel a “boat”. It’s a vessel, dontchaknow?

Read this story by Eric Welsh now.

June 28, 2011 1 comment

I’m a big fan of Longform.org, a site that collects top-notch longform journalism so good that you might never want to type another word or conduct another interview again. Each magazine piece is so good — and often so long — that it can cause one to question what we do as community journalists. It shows me that, as a writer, I have a long way to go. Most stuff printed in our newspapers — both community and daily — wouldn’t measure up to the type of journalism we see in magazines.

There is, of course, the matter of time; we don’t have months to throw at a story. And there’s also the issue of space.

But what we can match, although we often fail to do so, is magazine journalists’ use of voice. That is, writing that, by way of its sheer verve, energy and technique, delivers the reader to a story that may otherwise be unremarkable or, maybe, remarkable but somewhat predictable.

That’s what has me so excited about Chilliwack Progress sports reporter Eric Welsh‘s four-part tale of a local basketball player battling cancer. The story itself follows a semi-predictable pattern: star athlete faces obstacle, struggles to overcome. But Eric’s writing makes the story more than that. And for that you should read it, if only to be challenged to do him one better. And that would be a challenge.

As an example: The series begins thusly:

The house is quiet. Everyone is asleep and the only sounds she hears are the hum of the refrigerator and the occasional car driving past on Alexander Avenue.

She is not asleep.

Lot of trouble with that lately.

Slightly built, she moves cat-like around the darkened apartment until she reaches his bedroom door.

She opens it just enough to slip through, and sidles over to his bed.

And she watches.

She breathes a silent sigh of relief as she sees his chest rising and falling, the rhythmic in-and-out of healthy lungs at work.

She follows this same routine every night, momentarily comforted yet forever haunted by the thought that one night her baby will be gone.

Such a strange thing to worry about with an 18-year-old boy.

Read part one here, part two here, and part three here. Part four is coming on Thursday.

Categories: Writing

A small-town reporter can make a difference

April 13, 2011 Comments off

Catherine Litt’s blog pointed out the following inspiring story of a newspaper editor at a small-town weekly American paper with a three-person newsroom who recently broke open a cold-case murder file that dated back more than 40 years.

In this hollowed-out little town of 3,511 people, a newspaperman named Stanley Nelson can be found most days clattering away on a decade-old Mac computer. He moves with a slow and purposeful calm. But he too has been roiling the waters.

Not long past New Year’s Day — after four years of painstaking shoe leather, deep document dives and endless interviews — Nelson published a front page exposé like none the weekly Concordia Sentinel had ever seen.

more…

I don’t use the word “inspiring” lightly here. This is one of those fairly-rare examples of a good reporter practising the type of large-scale journalism that I get a sense many (but clearly not all) believe is impossible at small newspapers.

As editor of the Sentinel and head of a news staff of three, Nelson for decades tended to local government, public works, historical features and business in a challenged community, where the healthiest-looking storefronts belong to Jo Jo’s Drive-Thru Daiquiris and the parish work release office.

Nelson had never been particularly political, though he had a vague notion he wanted to do something bigger…

If you read on, though, you’ll notice that the story didn’t fall into Nelson’s lap, rather he went after it and conducted dozens of interviews, only picking up a trail after speaking to 20-odd people. I think there’s a good chance that such stories lay hidden in most small B.C. towns. Whether they can be uncovered, of course, is one thing. But while many papers do try and explore big local issues, there are also many that simply lack ambition, for whatever reason.

Nelson’s story, I think, puts the lie to self-defeated journalists who say they don’t have the time. Most of us have at least a little free time during the work week to invest in a bigger story down the road. And it’s those stories that make a person want to keep working.

So go forth and chase those red herrings. And maybe, one day, you’ll bump into Moby Dick out there.

Categories: Writing Tags: ,

Award-winning stories for the rest of the month

March 31, 2011 Comments off

Remember how I was going to try and post daily links to award-nominated stories from last year?

Yeah, I forgot all about it too.

Thankfully, someone at Black Press did a bunch of the work for me and linked to editions of a bunch of that chain’s award-winning pieces. You can find the whole list here… Actually, because it’s just a list, I think I can just copy and paste it below with few qualms. (A couple stories are missing links; not my fault)

Either way, the stories are quite impressive. In fact, they make you think that many of those stories could be collated into a half-decent bi-annual magazine, or something similar. Great idea? Lousy idea? Leave a comment.

BC Arts Council Arts & Culture Writing Award

Nelson Star ‐ Bob Hall, Pantomime Series

Williams Lake Tribune – Sage Birchwater, Urban Ink/Twin Fish Wind Up First Youth Training Session

B.C. Automobile Association Business Writing Award

Kelowna Capital News – Judie Steeves, Crushed Gold; Okanagan Wine Industry has Come a Long Way

Thompson River University School of Journalism Environmental Writing Award

Surrey, North Delta Leader – Jeff Nagel, Trash Talk

Provence Restaurants Feature Article Award

Burnaby News Leader ‐ Mario Bartel, An Afghan Basketball Journey

North Shore Outlook ‐ Kelly McManus, Chat Roulette

Feature Series Award

Chilliwack Progress – Eric Welsh, Painstaking Path to Potential Cure

Victoria News ‐ Lisa Weighton, Rebirth Through Reburial

Glacier Media Investigative Journalism Award

Langley Times ‐ Monique Tamminga, Pet Shop Dogged by Virus/ No Limits on City Dog Sales/ City Looks to Ban Pet Sales

Neville Shanks Memorial Award for Historical Writing

Langley Times – Warren Sommer, Lets We Forget: Gathering at Menin Gate

Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows News – Robert Mangelsdorf, At the Heart of Whonnock

Outdoor Recreation Writing Award

Bowen Island Undercurrent – Martha Perkins, National Park Debate Unleashed; Off‐ Leash Areas

Canadian Sport Centre Pacific Sports Writing Award

Abbotsford News – Dan Kinvig, Gray gets the Point

Peace Arch News – Nick Greenizan, Conquering Uphill Battle

Copy this idea: Kamloops Daily News edition (updated w/ comment)

March 4, 2011 3 comments

A good reporter knows to follow his or her own curiosity to dig up good stories. Whenever you find yourself puzzling over something unexplained phenomenon in your town, there’s a pretty good chance a half-decent story isn’t too far away.

When one person has a question, it’s a good chance many others are wondering the same thing. The Kamloops Daily News has taken that idea to a new (or, at least, newish) level by asking reader’s to write in with their curious questions about life in the city.

The best of those questions are handed off to KDN reporter/associate editor Catherine Litt for a regular “Reader’s Reporter” column.

The questions often result in interesting stories, even about dry topics (See Jan. 4’s “Why use such big gravel on the highway?“)

Of course, any newspaper anywhere can copy the idea. The feature is not only interesting and (seems) relatively easy to produce, but it’s also a great way to create a sense of community ownership in a newspaper.

********

P.S. Catherine comments below:

Our Q&A feature under the Reader’s Reporter banner has proven to be a real success with our readership. Not a week goes by without someone mentioning to me that they look forward to reading the Q&As.

By the way, this idea isn’t new. There is at least one newspaper in the U.S. that’s been doing a similar thing for a few years now, again with success. About a year ago, I brought the concept to our editor, Mel Rothenburger; he loved it and gave me the go-ahead to put it under our already established Reader’s Reporter department.

In all honesty, he deserves a lot of credit for buying into such a ‘seemingly’ non-journalism concept. Colleagues of mine rolled their eyes at the idea. I think the perception was that so-called serious journalists shouldn’t be wasting time hunting down answers to questions about highway gravel. They’ve warmed to the idea since.

Anyway, I would certainly encourage other papers in B.C. to copy the idea. If they’re lucky like I was, they’ll have an editor who is open-minded and eager to try new ways of reaching out to readers.
–Catherine
p.s. Thanks for taking notice of our little Q&A feature.

How to get famous in 700 words

February 16, 2011 Comments off

I typed "fame" into Flickr. Here's what came up.

As far as community journalism in B.C. goes, the whole “building your brand” thing that is so in vogue among certain journalistic elements in the United States is just a horrible, horrible, horrible catch phrase. (Tip off: the word “brand”).

Here, you’re never going to be able to hold your employer hostage for more money by threatening to leave because, by and large, the people holding the purse strings aren’t the ones who give a shit if your paper is good or not.

That said, there are competitive, personal and ego-maniacal reasons to try and get famous in your community. And, at any community paper in B.C., there’s an easy way to court that fame.

First the benefits.

The more people know your name, the more people are likely to think of you — and not some other hack in town — when something interesting, controversial or otherwise newsworthy comes up. That makes your life as a reporter easier, and more interesting. And let’s face it, it’s also flattering to have people know your name.

We all like to think we’re important, even if, in the grand scheme of things — when the planet we live on is but a speck in the universe — even the Peter Mansbridges of us are just as disposable than ants. But Christ, that’s such a depressing note that it feels good to have an old grannie in the store talk to you about the paper.

So how do you get famous?

Write a column.

Write as many as you can. There’s nothing like a standing head to put a face to words.

It wasn’t too long ago that I was a newspaper reader, rather than writer. And the only journalists in town that I knew of was the guy on TV and the newspaper folk who wrote columns.

It’s not just the mug shot beside a name that does it (although, sadly, it’s probably the most important part). What you write also is very important. If you’re funny, then people are much, much more likely to read your column regularly and know your name. Ditto if you write about things vaguely controversial.

On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re just writing sappy schlock — no matter how good your writing, or how sappy your schlock — readers are less likely to want to read your column when they see your face. Ditto if you just write the same antagonistic column from the same ideological point of view over and over again.

But even that’s better than the infamous column that doesn’t say anything. A close cousin of the editorial that doesn’t editorialize, this piece of writing often implores others to come up with solutions, without actually taking a stance on the subject in question.

So that’s columns. I don’t know how to wrap up my post, but I don’t want to spend anymore time on it, so I’ll open it up for comments, if anyone wants to bother…

Photos by Steven Depolo via Flickr.
Categories: Writing

Williams Lake strippers shut down

January 24, 2011 Comments off

Only one story in today’s northern B.C. roundup. But it features strippers, so it counts twice.

According to this unbylined article in the Williams Lake Tribune, two single mothers who own a Williams Lake strip joint say their business may not reopen after being forced to close down for 26 days for a variety of infractions, including allowing contact between customer and stripper and letting drunks stick around.

I like business stories that are actual stories not fluff pieces.

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On a semi-related note, and to fill some space: I don’t like the following paragraph construction in community papers:

“Mike Jones is a local firefighter whose parents died in a horrendous fire 10 years ago. He thinks people shouldn’t smoke in bed.”

The X is Y introduction is awkward in a newspaper article. It’s fine in some magazine pieces, and is a common construct on TV. But it’s weird in a newspaper, which is why you don’t see it often. (I just made up this paragraph.)

A better sentence (in my opinion): “Mike Jones, a local firefighter whose parents died in a horrendous fire 10 years ago, thinks people shouldn’t smoke in bed.”

Categories: Roundup, Writing Tags: ,
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